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By: Eric Van Dril | Jan. 26, 2017
The North Lawndale squad that went undefeated and turned so many heads this past summer was never totally intact during the first two months of this season. There was always at least one player who wasn’t eligible due to grades or not being cleared after transferring into the school.
That changed on Wednesday night.
The Phoenix were at full-strength against Whitney Young, the Public League’s No. 2-ranked team, and they showed what they’re capable of in a 67-54 victory that is by far the biggest of their season thus far.
“It was huge for us,” North Lawndale coach Lewis Thorpe said. “We’ve never had our entire team until today, and I was really nervous about it because I was wondering if we would click right away. We had good practices all week. I was like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do.’ It worked out for us.”
Senior guard Steven Ross, who finished with a game-best 17 points, added: “We just wanted to come out and prove a point. This is our first time with our whole team. We wanted to make sure we made a statement early.”
The Phoenix did that.
Ross was scorching-hot early in the game. He hit a trio of 3-pointers in the first quarter, then scored on a putback to extend No. 7 North Lawndale’s lead to 16-11.
The Phoenix (17-4, 6-2 Red-West) were ahead at that moment, but Thorpe wasn’t happy with the way his starters were playing defense so he went to his bench.
Thorpe brought in five new players, including junior guard David Forrest and senior guard Erick Johnson. Neither played in North Lawndale’s two-point loss to Whitney Young earlier this season, according to Ross.
The defensive-minded substitutes stayed on the court for a little bit more than two minutes and 30 seconds. They didn’t just maintain the lead, they extended it to 23-13.
Junior guard Joshua Jackson drained a 3-pointer during that stretch. Johnson scored on a putback and took a charge. Junior forward Clavonne Hilliard (nine points, 10 rebounds) provided toughness and rebounding on the interior, which was also the case later in the game.
The majority of North Lawndale’s starters — including Ross and senior guards Martrell Barnes and Carlos Hines — returned with 6:22 left in the second quarter.
Barnes (11 points, six rebounds) and Hines (six points, four rebounds) were both held under their scoring averages on Jan. 25, and Chicago State commit Leonard Caples didn’t score. But Ross and North Lawndale’s reserves picked up the scoring slack.
Jackson, for example, caught fire. He hit five of his six 3-point attempts.
“I knew I was going to come out shooting,” Jackson, who finished with 16 points, said. “I just had a feeling I was going to have a big game.”
Jackson’s third 3-pointer proved to be his most important shot of the night.
Whitney Young (14-5, 6-1) went on a 17-2 run in the first seven minutes of the third quarter by increasing its defensive intensity, which created turnovers and led to scoring opportunities in transition. The Dolphins took a 44-43 lead with about a minute remaining, but Jackson hit an open 3-pointer in the final minute of the third to put North Lawndale back ahead.
“Going into the fourth, I said, ‘Look guys, the coaches expected (Whitney Young to rally). Now we’ve got to prove we’re the better team. We’re OK. Are you having fun?’” Thorpe recalled. “(They said) ‘Yeah, coach. Yeah!’ That kind of took their mind off of it. I said, ‘All right, let’s finish it.’
Ross scored back-to-back baskets to start the fourth quarter. Jackson followed with a 3-pointer off of a North Lawndale offensive rebound. Jackson then found Hilliard for a lay-up, and a steal by Barnes led to a Ross lay-in.
Like that, the Phoenix led 57-46. The game was never in doubt after that.
During the first, second and fourth quarters, North Lawndale showed that it will be very difficult to beat when it’s at full strength, plays strong defensively and takes care of the ball.
“When we’re at full blast, I don’t think we can be beat,” Ross said. “That’s how I want to finish this season out: unbeaten. We want to win city and state.”
Ross continued: “We didn’t lose a game this summer, so we felt like we were going to have a great season. It’s just been up and down with grades and eligibility. Now, we’ve got our full team. We just want to push each other in the classroom, make sure everybody stays eligible so we can win the rest of these games.”
The Dolphins had a game-and-a-half lead in the Red-West, entering Wednesday night’s home game. They would have clinched the conference title with a win over North Lawndale, but the game wasn’t a must-win.
Therefore, Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter coached the game a little bit differently.
Slaughter didn’t call any timeouts during a first half where North Lawndale outscored Whitney Young 41-27. He wanted his players to sort things out on their own.
“We let them play through it,” Slaughter explained. “We weren’t trying to win the conference tonight. We’re ahead. We’re not in any great shape, but we’re ahead. From my perspective, (the mindset was), ‘Let’s see if you guys can figure this thing out.’”
Slaughter continued: “We knew we had fight in us. … They came out in that third quarter, and they made a tremendous stand to take a lead. We subbed some guys out, put some other guys in. (North Lawndale) made a couple more shots, had a couple hustle plays. When that happens, that’s what will take place. Again, for us, we turn the page. We get back at it tomorrow. We have a big game on Friday against Marshall.”
Whitney Young still controls its own destiny in the Red-West race. North Lawndale now owns the point differential tiebreaker, however, so one more loss by the Dolphins would open the door for the Phoenix to win the conference.
Moving forward, it will be imperative for Whitney Young to do a better job at the free-throw line. The Dolphins, whose rotation almost entirely consists of guards, were an uncharacteristic 12-for-23 (52.2 percent) from the line.
They must also start faster.
“If you start the game slow and without any energy and intensity, you have an opportunity to get beat. Tonight, that’s what happened,” Slaughter said. “There are no excuses. (North Lawndale) just outplayed us in every phase of the game today. I give them all the credit. They just outplayed us. They wanted it more, and their energy and their effort showed that. If you play slow like we did, with really no energy, it’s going to get to you.”
Senior forward Lucas Williamson led Whitney Young in scoring with 14 points. Junior Javon Freeman had 13 points and nine rebounds. Junior guard Xavier Castaneda scored 10 points off of the bench.
Castaneda and junior guard Justin Boyd, who also came off of the bench, are still working their way back to full strength, according to Slaughter.
“We’re trying to play them in some sparing moments,” Slaughter said. “It’s all coming. It’ll be there in time. We’re still in first place in the conference. We just have to hold serve and we’ll be fine.”